"Homage" to the Finns and Sibelius

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The following was inthe Sunday New York Times, I thought that some of the Finns among us might appreciate it. You can download for free for 7 days, then you'll have to purchase:
June 12, 2005
After Sibelius, Finland's Rich Bounty of Musicians

WHEN you live in a country of only 5.2 million people and your native tongue is unintelligible to virtually everyone outside your borders, you'd better learn to converse with the rest of the world if you don't want to end up talking to yourself.

This is the problem faced by the Finns, and among their many admirable traits has been shrewd adaptation to this exigency. While they hold dearly to the foundations of their national culture, such as the "Kalevala" epic, they also compete internationally in an eclectic array of fields, from cell phone technology to javelin-throwing, and from contemporary architecture and design to ski-jumping.

The Finns' recent emergence as a power in classical music is another case in which they have mastered a lingua franca. Defying a trend in many Western countries, where audiences are dwindling and the tradition itself seems in retreat, Finland has in the last 15 years developed first-class classical musicians out of all proportion to its size. Steady investment in music education by the government has created generations of avid listeners and, according to official figures, more orchestras per capita than anywhere on the globe.

Finland's tiny market guarantees that a number of its musical stars must be exported. The conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen, Osmo Vanska, Sakari Oramo, and Mikko Franck; the singers Jorma Hynninen, Matti Salminen, Soile Isokoski and Karita Mattila; the violinists Pekka and Jaakko Kuusisto; and the composers Aulis Sallinen, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Kaija Saariaho, and Magnus Lindberg have spent a good part of their careers abroad.

But Finns can often catch them on their visits home. For instance, Mr. Vanska has been widely lauded for reviving the fortunes of the Minnesota Orchestra, where he is music director. But last November I heard him in the Finnish provincial city of Lahti, where he often conducts the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in a striking new jewel box of a hall.

Summer is the traditional season to visit Finland for music. The opera festival in the castle at Savonlinna (July 8 to Aug. 6) and the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival (July 17 to 31) are highly celebrated and well attended. And yet even in the gloom of a Finnish winter, in concert halls and churches and music academies, the variety and level of performances is exceptionally high.

Helsinki is the hub and, apart from its musical offerings, has a calm, dignified profile. Eliel Saarinen's gray granite Art Nouveau train station in the city center is one among dozens of modern architectural landmarks. There's an extensive and efficient trolley system and taxis accept credit cards. For decades, Finland was terra incognita to American tourists and it shows. Starbucks has only lately established a beachhead; local brands are far more common.

The ideal base for cultural excursions, if you can afford it, is the Hotel Kamp. In mid-July, rooms start at $270 at $1.26 to the euro. The Kamp, Pohjoisesplanadi 29; (358-9) 576-111; luxurycollection.com, is just off Esplanade Park and close to the city's principal musical institutions - Finlandia Hall (designed by Alvar Aalto), the National Opera House and the Sibelius Academy. For those so inclined, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (Stephen Holl's building, opened in 1998) and the Ateneum (the national art gallery, situated opposite Saarinen's train station) are also close by. The hotel, which dates back to 1887, has a selection of indoor saunas and superb restaurants.

Even if it was not one of Europe's best luxury hotels, the Kamp would be worth a stop for its associations with Jean Sibelius and his artist friends. It is almost 50 years since the composer's death and yet he remains a looming figure with whom every Finnish musician must contend, either by accepting, rejecting, ignoring, or just bemoaning his prominence. Not only is Sibelius an icon on the currency but he also acts as the country's permanent ambassador by being its first, and still most, internationally recognized name.

"If you asked who is the most important figure in Finnish history, 8 of 10 Finns would say Sibelius," says Mr. Vanska. "In no other country would a composer rank so high."
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